Devil May Cry V is right around the corner, with a demo dropping on February 8th and the full release a month later. It's time to take a look at the origins of the legendary action series, it's influence on gaming and why it is so beloved by fans.
I first played the Devil May Cry series several years ago on PS2 but was rather annoyed to find that my copy of DMC 3 wasn't functioning. So I decided to fork out for the HD rerelease on PS3. Devil May Cry is my favourite action series and replaying the original classics (aside from DMC 2) recently reminded me why that is.
DMC might be significantly more niche than other influential series like Grand Theft Auto, Mario or Zelda, but its significant difficulty, campy atmosphere, lovable protagonist and a focus on mastering a complex and rewarding combo system has attracted a dedicated fanbase. With Devil May Cry V finally coming out in March it's a great time to examine the legacy, influence and importance of the epic action franchise.
Devil May Cry was the progenitor of a host of games that people don't seem to agree on how to describe. Hack and slash, character-action, stylish-action and extreme action are but a few examples of labels applied to this series. But whatever you choose to call it, Devil May Cry was the progenitor of this sub-genre. It might not be as influential as Mario 64 or Grand Theft Auto III but it's a title that should be played by anyone with an interest in action games.
Devil May Cry 1 has a really curious development history. The game's director Hideki Kamiya worked on the first Resident Evil game and was tasked with directing the second. After his stellar work on that game, he was asked to direct the fourth RE and it's here where things get interesting. Kamiya intended for the 4th game in the series to shake things up a bit and made the game much more action focused than it's predecessors. Kamiya's superiors wanted him to tone down the action aspects and focus on making a survival horror game, which is pretty ironic considering the direction Resident Evil would eventually take. However, Kamiya refused to budge and eventually convinced Capcom to turn the work his team had done into a new IP. Thus Devil May Cry was born. It's funny to think that if one man hadn't persisted with the higher-ups we might have been denied one of the most important action series ever.
Kamiya has stated in interviews that when he went to the arcade as a child he would often watch other players so as to formulate strategies on how to best play. He didn't have much pocket money as a child and so wanted to learn the best ways to play each game without hitting a continue screen. Of course, the 1980s era arcade machines were brutally difficult so that they could extract as much money as possible out of the people playing them.
He noticed that players who regularly completed games on a single life would often show off and take more risks as a crowd of people gathered to watch them play. This is where Kamiya got the idea of style ranking from, he thought it would just be a cool idea to have a game that rewards players for doing flashy and awesome things. A combat system which was challenging, but also empowered players to look and feel cool was the underlying point. Combined with the campy and often ridiculous tropes of Japanese action across films, manga, anime and games Kamiya had the basis for Devil May Cry.
Still though this title clearly started out as a Resident Evil game. The camera for example, is probably the game's biggest flaw. The early Resident evil titles used a fixed camera with prerendered backgrounds, when you enter a room the camera will stay in one place rather than track the player like most 3-D games. The advantage of this was that RE could have excellent (for the time) looking areas with minimal strain on the PS1's hardware. Further the limited vision contributed to the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that a survival-horror game needs.
DMC 1 mostly retains this camera but with significant tracking and fully 3-D environments. For a fast-paced action game it mostly gets in the way and can be a cause of frustration, the camera was finally fixed in DMC 3. Other more subtle influences from Resident Evil include the creaking sound when you open a door or the warning you see when you boot it up that "this game contains scenes of explicit blood and gore", a reminder of how old it is.
Probably one of the biggest reasons why the DMC series has garnered such a love from its fans is the protagonist Dante. A half-human, half-demon man who hunts demons using a sword and guns. With the exception of DMC 2, Dante is largely portrayed as cocky and irreverent, often firing off cheesy one-liners at bosses during cutscenes. Despite this he maintains an air of seriousness when the story demands, something which is strengthened by the contrast to his usually humorous attitude.
The style system at the heart of the combat wouldn't really be perfected until DMC 3 but it's still a really neat concept to base a game on. In DMC 1 and 2, your style ranking at any one time is measured from D going up to S, progressing from Dull, Cool, Bravo, Absolute and Stylish. The poor translation of the era is on display here as later DMC games would use words like Brutal and Atomic instead. In the first two games hitting enemies continuously would raise your style ranking which would reset back to dull after 1.5 seconds.
When DMC first came out this was essentially the beginning of 3-D action games as we know them. No one had really attempted to transfer the beat em up style of many 2-D fighting games to the new world of 3-D gaming. Titles like Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time had demonstrated that 3-D games and dual analogue controls were the future of gaming. 2-D style beat em ups were very popular in 80s arcades and 90s consoles. Devil May Cry effectively meshed the new era of 3-D games and old 2-D action games like Final Fight.
On the surface, DMC's controls are remarkably simple. You press one button and Dante swings his sword, press another to fire his pistols, another to taunt and another to jump. Although the complexity of DMC 3 was not yet present the game really got the most out of the controller.
There might only be one melee button but it's applications were huge. Smashing triangle three times will perform a standard three hit combo, but pausing after the second swing will allow you to execute three other combos based on how long you pause between each button press. Holding back on the left stick while attacking will let you launch an enemy in the air. You can then repeatedly shoot them with Dante's pistols to juggle them helplessly.
The more of these combos you combine in quick succession the higher your style ranking will go and the more red orbs you will acquire. Red orbs are used to purchase new moves which can in turn be combined with your old combos to more quickly reach higher style rankings.
The game actively rewards players who spend time experimenting with their moves and learning the mechanics of the game. With singleplayer games becoming increasingly easy I've always appreciated this design philosophy. The more time and effort you put into the game, the more it rewards you.
In the 2nd mission Dante acquires his signature Devil Trigger ability. Activating it gives Dante a damage boost, regenerating health and improved defence. The DT gauge can only be replenished by taunting an enemy or dealing and receiving damage. This prevents it being abused like an ability or spell cooldown.
There's plenty more that makes DMC's combat system special but I won't drone on too much. The combat system combines with a great soundtrack, excellent level design and a plethora of interesting enemies. Overall Devil May Cry is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst a lot of this might seem pretty integral to action games of the present, DMC was first released in 2001. There was really nothing comparable at the time. DMC was a smash hit when it released in 2001, selling over 2 million copies.
The influence of the series should be obvious to anyone with a penchant for action titles. DMC showed that the fast-paced and over the top action of more easy to animate 2-D games could be translated into a 3-D format. DMC effectively spawned the hack and slash sub-genre for the 3-D era. Games like God of War (2005), Ninja Gaiden, Dark Siders, No More Heroes and virtually every title made by Platinum Games all have a lineage to varying degrees with Devil May Cry.
Bayonetta, often seen as DMC's spiritual successor was even developed by many of the same team members who worked on DMC 1, including Kamiya himself. The quick, combo-based gameplay of DMC can easily be seen emulated in titles from the time like Ninja Gaiden and even more contemporary games like NieR: Automata. Some of DMC's more minor mechanics were also adopted in other series. God of War's Rage mechanic is fairly transparently a copy of Devil Trigger, although I'm not knocking that series by any means. Dante's personality would also serve as a blueprint for other action game characters. The most obvious is Bayonetta but other examples are the protagonist in Saint's Row or even Geralt from the Witcher games.
DMC 1 was in retrospect a proof of concept that DMC 3 and 4 would refine into something amazing. It's been over ten years since DMC 4 was released in 2008. I can only hope that Capcom can once again craft a challenging, stylish and awesome action title when we finally get Devil May Cry V on March 8th.